- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter
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Here's a quick look at how five hugely popular veterans departed the franchises that made them famous and the aftermath:
1. Joe Montana: An injury to Montana in 1991 allowed Steve Young to shine. Still, the 49ers faced a huge dilemma in 1993 as they tried to decide what to do with, arguably, the greatest quarterback ever. The 49ers traded Montana to Kansas City.
The verdict: It was the right call. Montana had two decent years before retiring, but his trade cleared the way for Young's Hall of Fame career and continued success for San Francisco.
2. John Lynch: There was outrage by Tampa Bay fans and by the usually diplomatic Lynch when the Buccaneers released the safety for salary cap reasons in 2004.
The verdict: The Bucs implied that Lynch was slowing down after 11 seasons with the team. But Lynch's level of play has showed very little drop-off since he joined the Denver Broncos. Although he's hinted at retirement in recent weeks, he's playing in the Pro Bowl on Sunday.
3. Drew Bledsoe: Although he was the first overall pick in the 1993 draft and had some good years, Bledsoe is generally viewed as the Wally Pipp of the NFL. Soon after signing a record 10-year, $103 million contract in 2001, Bledsoe was injured on a hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. That opened the door for Tom Brady to play quarterback for New England.
The verdict: Although Brady had been a sixth-round draft pick, he led the Patriots to a Super Bowl title and New England knew it was time to let Bledsoe go. Bledsoe bounced around a few more years with Buffalo and Dallas and always drew a warm response when he returned to New England, where Brady has become an icon on the level of Larry Bird and Ted Williams.
4. Steve Beuerlein: He was an ordinary quarterback throughout a long career. But Beuerlein seemed to find a home with Carolina late in his career. He threw for 4,436 yards and made the Pro Bowl in the 1999 season. He followed that up with another solid season. But then, coach George Seifert single-handedly (and against the wishes of management and other members of the coaching staff) stunningly cut Beuerlein, who was well on his way to becoming one of the most popular players in Carolina's brief history.
The verdict: Ultimately, cutting Beuerlein ended Seifert's coaching career (he had the NFL's all-time best winning percentage when he came to Carolina). Inexplicably, Seifert decided career backup Jeff Lewis, who had never done much of anything, was ready to start. Seifert was incredibly wrong. Lewis was physically and emotionally battered in the 2001 preseason. After throwing three interceptions in a five-minute span in an exhibition at Baltimore, Seifert realized his mistake and cut Lewis. But it was too late. Seifert had to turn to rookie Chris Weinke, and the Panthers went 1-15. Seifert was fired after the season and has rarely been heard from since.
5. Emmitt Smith: Soon after he became the NFL's all-time leading rusher in the 2002 season, the Dallas Cowboys had to decide if they wanted to keep one of the "Triplets'' (Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin were the others) from their 1990s dynasty. They let Smith walk to Arizona, where he had two lackluster seasons.
The verdict: There was no real winner or loser here. Smith didn't prove the Cowboys wrong while playing behind a typically bad Arizona offensive line. When all was said and done, the Cowboys handled the public relations side as well as possible, signing Smith to a one-day contract to let him officially retire with Dallas in 2005. The Cowboys struggled to find a successor in the running game before finally settling on the one-two punch of Julius Jones and Marion Barber.
Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Pat Yasinskas takes a look at five hugely popular veterans who left the franchises that made them famous.